D.C. Political Establishment Makes Hilarious Fodder for Musical Comedy Troupe
Washington is often viewed as the least playful of the major world capitals, but the musical comedy troupe known as the Capitol Steps delightfully demonstrates that the business of this buttoned-down bureaucratic center provides fine fodder for what is probably one of the top political comedy shows in the nation. Jay Leno, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert have nothing over this group of polished political performers.
Capitol Steps came into being in 1981 when a group of staffers for Sen. Charles Percy (R-Ill.) decided to write some musical political satire for a Christmas party. Elaina Newport, a tall blonde with an infectious grin, was one of those staffers and is now the veteran member of the Capitol Steps.
In an interview after a recent Saturday night performance, she related how she thought the Christmas party show would be just a one-time gig. “We expected to be told to stop,” she said. But more than 25 years later, the Capitol Steps are going stronger than ever with a new venue at the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center, aptly located just a few blocks from the White House.
Members of the Capitol Steps are no longer the day-jobbers from congressional staffs that they once were, but instead full-time musicians, comedians, writers and singers. They have recorded 27 albums, appeared on major network television shows, been frequent guests on National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered,” and have been featured in three national specials for public television. They’ve also toured the country—recently appearing for the first time in Vice President Dick Cheney’s native Wyoming, where they were well received, according to Newport. “We’ve performed for five [U.S.] presidents,” Newport noted. “Six, if you include Hillary.”
Legendary “Saturday Night Live” producer Lorne Michaels once stated that if there’s no risk taking in comedy, you end up with something called “warmedy.” In other words, good comedy should bite—and bite the Capitol Steps do.
“We want everyone to know that we’re going to get everybody,” said Newport. “If we get the guy you like in the first song, then we’re going to get the guy you don’t like in the next one.” Although no four-letter words are used in the lyrics, the material does not back off in any other way—and sex rears its political head quite a few times throughout the performances.
In one show in June, the Steps lampooned every presidential candidate, the pope, President Bush, Hugo Chávez, Kim Jong Il, Nancy Pelosi, Al Gore, Vladimir Putin, Don Imus, the demoted planet Pluto, the Transportation Security Administration, Washington’s Metro system, Iraqi Kurds, Mel Gibson, I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby and many more.
Highlights of this thoroughly entertaining performance included “Polonium-209” sung to the melody of “Love Potion Number 9” by a Putin impersonator. Newport noted that although this particular material involved the serious theme of death, the parody was really about Putin and the KGB. Equally entertaining was a standup routine by an impersonator of Mexican President Felipe Calderón on the timely subject of immigration. Suggesting that he might become the president of the United States, this pseudo-Calderón observed that “17 of my cousins will be staying in the Lincoln Bedroom, but the Rose Garden will look immaculate.”
President Bush also got the treatment from a wonderful Steps actor who proclaimed that “uncertain times call for uncertain leaders.” When the “president” is asked if he is familiar with pedophilia in regards to the Mark Foley scandal, he replies, “No, but I don’t read a lot of Shakespeare.” He later comments to an actor playing Cheney: “I didn’t know your daughter was Lebanese.”
One hilarious number sung to “Leaving on a Jet Plane” and performed by Newport lampooned the Transportation Security Administration for accepting a passenger with a deadly strain of tuberculosis but refusing to allow shampoo onboard. Newport strikingly resembled a young Mary from the Peter, Paul and Mary musical trio as she gently strummed an acoustic guitar.
And the Clintons, via Hillary’s run for president, are still very much in the Steps’ satirical sights. In a send-up of a Shakespearean tragedy dubbed “Shamlet” with Hillary as the Queen of York, there is confusion about whether the “L” word refers to lesbian or liberal. Former President Clinton in a “Richard III” moment shouts, “My kingdom for a whore.” The Steps don’t try to play it safe.
Almost two hours of laugh-till-you-cry comedy speeds by in the plush Reagan Center auditorium, where the only theatrical touch to this serious business venue is the installation of soft swag theater curtains. But no matter—this performance is about lyrics and their delivery, not ambiance.
Newport said audience numbers have been increasing at recent performances. Perhaps more people are getting in sync with the group’s philosophy on humor, as explained by Newport: “The world’s going crazy, so come see us and we’ll agree with you on that point.” Crazy, yes, and very, very funny.
The Capitol Steps performances every Friday and Saturday at 7:30 p.m. Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center 1300 Pennsylvania Ave. NW Tickets are . For more information, please call (703) 683-8330 or visit www.capsteps.com.
Political Comedy’s New Kid on the Block
Planet Washington’s creator and singer Ken Rynne looks remarkably like an Irish cop from central casting. So it’s no wonder that in his many performing roles, he’s actually been cast to play one. With a bite for the acting bug and a lifelong love of singing that started as a choirboy in his native Boston, it’s also no surprise that Rynne has thrown his hat into Washington’s musical political satire ring.
Performing in the style of Mark Russell and accompanied by pianist Sean Collins, Rynne has been doing his Planet Washington gig on a full-time basis for the past eight months. His current regular venue is the National Press Club, where he can be seen every Friday night.
Rynne’s background makes him a natural for the political satire scene. A graduate of Georgetown University Law School, he has lived in Washington since 1971. His first taste of Potomac politics came when he interned for House Speaker Tip O’Neill (D-Mass.), at the same time that Chris Matthews, now of MSNBC’s “Hardball,” worked for the speaker.
Describing himself as “the oldest intern on the Hill,” Rynne went on to work for Democratic Sens. Howard Metzenbaum and Tom Daschle. The Metzenbaum stint allowed him to rub shoulders with Vice President Al Gore, also a staffer at the time. Rynne then became Rep. Joe Kennedy’s legislative director. Throughout his day-job years, Rynne appeared with Hexagon, a group that performs original political musical satire for charity. He was then encouraged to audition for the Capitol Steps and wound up performing with the group for one year in 1991.
With an appetite whetted for prime time, Rynne sought mentoring from Washington performer and pianist Dan Ruskin, the brother of Mark Russell, who Rynne notes has been generous with his time.
Today, inspired by news headlines, Rynne is busily writing satirical lyrics to the music of popular tunes he grew up with. In one delightful departure from his headline material, Rynne does a standup routine in the style of humorist Garrison Keillor’s Guy Noir private detective character that focuses on New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd.
In regard to the importance of humor for a beleaguered world, Rynne observed: “There’s an old saying that ‘laughter is the best medicine,’ and I would add to that, ‘Now more than ever.’”
Planet Washington performances every Friday at 7:30 p.m. National Press Club 529 14th St., NW Tickets are in advance or at the door. For more information, please call the press club at (202) 662-7500 or visit www.planetwashington.com.
About the Author
Rachel Ray is a freelance writer in Washington, D.C.